Higher education will have to be more accountable for its performance and more open to consumers about the actual cost of attending a college, and help people make easier comparisons among institutions, in order to succeed as the nation's economic engine, says a new report from two nonprofit think tanks here.
Two major voluntary efforts under way to measure and report colleges' costs and academic effectiveness are inadequate, and provide parents and students with too little information to make informed choices about where they will get the most from their tuition dollars, say researchers at the two organizations, the libertarian-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Education Sector, which is a proponent of reforming higher education
And without a more thorough and open form of accountability, institutions will not have any incentive to make the changes that will improve students' success, concludes the report, "False Fronts? Behind Higher Education's Voluntary Accountability Systems."
"If existing flaws are not resolved, the nation runs the risk of ending up in the worst of all worlds: the appearance of higher education accountability without the reality," the authors say.
The two voluntary systems criticized in the study are the University and College Accountability Network, begun in September 2007 by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities to provide information about private colleges, and the Voluntary System of Accountability, which gives information about public colleges and is maintained by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
Both systems are online tools that provide profiles of institutions that choose to participate, sharing information on costs of attendance, enrollment, student engagement, and academic achievement.
But the report criticizes the private-college accountability network as "essentially a repackaging of data that are available elsewhere."
"While its search engine does accommodate institutional comparisons on the basis of student characteristics (e.g., SAT scores), graduation and retention rates, and college costs, it does not obligate institutions to gather or reveal any data that are not already available elsewhere," the report concluded about the network, which is called U-CAN.
David L. Warren, president of the independent-college association, said "the report largely misses the point of U-CAN."
"The study criticizes the U-CAN's repackaging of existing data, without acknowledging that consumers historically do not know where to find this information in a consumer-friendly format," he said. Mr. Warren added that the number of colleges participating has grown from 440 in 2007 to more than 700 today.
Limited Search Tools
By comparison, Tuesday's report said the accountability system for public colleges is "a legitimate effort to provide students with important information about how much college costs and the education students receive in return." But that system is also limited, the authors say, because it does not allow side-by-side comparisons, and users "cannot search for schools that share a set of characteristics—admissions selectivity, cost, average time to degree—nor can they easily rank schools on any of the criteria that they might want to."
In addition, many institutions perceived to be at the top or bottom of the quality scale do not participate in the accountability system and have no incentive to do so, the report says.
Christine M. Keller, executive director of the Voluntary System of Accountability, says the participation of two-thirds of the members of the sponsoring associations is one sign that the effort is succeeding.
But the system is still in its early stages, and some of the measures being used to measure institutions' performance are still evolving. For example, the information on tuition and fees will be changed in the next few months, to match new federal standards for the cost information that colleges will have to begin reporting on their Web sites within the next two years.
In addition, the associations are beginning to offer workshops and other opportunities for system participants to learn how to use the data they're collecting to improve the college experience for students, she said.
Both the public and private accountability systems were developed after a controversial report from a panel formed by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush. The report, released in 2006, criticized the "lack of clear, reliable information about the cost and quality of postsecondary institutions."
And the change in presidential administrations has not lessened the need for accountability, the report says, because President Obama, a Democrat, has set a goal of having the nation become a world leader in the rate of citizens who earn postsecondary degrees or certificates.